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(Clockwise from left) Kayla Watanabe, Allysha Yasuda, Kari Miyamoto, Jessica Mock and Chantel Ricks at the Meiji Shrine at Harajuku, Tokyo.

By Kayla Watanabe, Special Contributor

‘Kakehashi — No Regrets.’ That was our group’s motto this past March when we ventured off as complete strangers to explore the exquisite country of Japan. Before we could even remember each other’s names, we decided we weren’t going to take our time in Japan for granted, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that.

Over the past two years, the Japanese government has been sponsoring numerous Kakehashi exchange trips, in partnership with JACL and other organizations, to help foster and encourage cross-cultural relations between Japan and the U.S. Because of this, I had the incredible opportunity to visit the country of my ancestors alongside my sister and other Asian American students across the nation.


A group photo at the Japanese Overseas Migration Museum in Shin Yokohama, Japan

Japan is such a welcoming place and though I was initially overcome by unfamiliar faces and places, I quickly gained a sense of belonging among my peers and beautiful surroundings. It would be an understatement to say that this trip was a trip of a lifetime. Not only was I able to develop friendships that will easily endure time and distance, I gained a newfound appreciation for my heritage and an eagerness to learn more.

From visiting ancient shrines in Tokyo to pounding fresh mochi in the countryside, our days were packed with activities to help us gain a better understanding of Japan’s rich culture. We also had the chance to share a bit of our own culture when we hung out with college students from Kanazawa University and taught a roomful of people the “Cupid Shuffle.”

Though it was easy to consume ourselves in Japan’s culture and traditions, there were many times when “no regrets” was the reminder we sometimes needed to push ourselves out of our comfort zones.

For example, “no regrets” was at the back of our minds when trying new foods and participating in different cultural activities. It is what we told each other every time one of us offered omiyage to our hosts in Japanese or gave a presentation in front of a large group.

“No regrets” is also what we boldly muttered when visiting the onsen (“no clothes” hot springs) or when we had no other option but to use the squatty potty. This simple motto helped unite us in the beginning and continued to encourage us to take full advantage of the Kakehashi Program until the end.

Kayla Watanabe, Gurchit Singh and Elise Mori with Snoopy in Yokohama.

Kayla Watanabe, Gurchit Singh and Elise Mori with Snoopy in Yokohama.

One of the most memorable moments on the trip was my homestay in Komatsu. I’m not going to lie, my Japanese speaking skills are basically nonexistent, so when my roommates and I got our assignment as to whom we’d be staying with, I sighed with relief when we saw our family spoke English. We soon found out that that wasn’t quite the case, however, and I cursed all the times I goofed off during Japanese class.

But in all seriousness, verbal communication was a struggle and made day-to-day conversation a bit difficult. But my homestay family had a husky named Momo, and I love dogs. Mama enjoyed baking, and I love eating. Papa had a boat he used for jet skiing, and boating happens to be one of my favorite summertime activities. Though our differences felt overwhelmingly apparent at first, it was those exact differences that had us laughing the hardest and what made us completely ecstatic when discovering our similarities.

My time with my homestay family made me realize that there’s no better way to learn and appreciate another’s culture than experiencing it firsthand, which makes my time spent in Japan something I’ll always remember. Thanks JACL, JICE, the Muroi family and all of my beautiful companions for such a memorable journey. I miss you all!

In conclusion, it’s hard to have regrets when you get sent to a beautiful country with incredible guides, hard-working chaperones and an overall solid group like ours. Because of this, I don’t regret missing two whole weeks of school and having to do my homework during layovers; I don’t regret only getting sleep on the bus or going to McDonald’s every night to get sakura fries; I don’t even regret crying in my agent’s office when I thought my passport wouldn’t come in on time because honestly, I couldn’t even begin to imagine not being a part of this program.

The next round of trips is coming up later this year, and applications are already open, so here’s a shameless plug — apply for Kakehashi, take interest in your heritage. You won’t regret it. #KakehashiNoRegrets

Kayla Watanabe was one of 52 API students who participated in the March 2016 Kakehashi trip, accompanied by four JACL chaperones. She is a member of the Mt. Olympus Chapter and a rising senior at Utah State University.